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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology

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Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Mystery Towers: The Untold Story of WWII on the American Eastern Seaboard

mystery towers on a beach

Towers 3 and 4 are located in Rehoboth Beach, DE. These buildings range from 25-75 feet in height and have a different number of openings depending on the artillery associated with each tower. All of the towers are made of poured concrete and reinforced steel rebar, have 12 inch thick walls and are all 17 feet in diameter.

Photo used with the permission of Kevin Fleming.

These towers stand as a testament to a period of time in American history where a typical American citizen's day to day life was uncertain. During WWII, government officials feared a beach invasion from the Axis Powers much like the siege of Normandy Beach. In order to prevent such an occurrence and to protect our nation's capital, Fort Miles was established on the eastern coast of Delaware. The observation towers were a part of this sprawling fort system and were constructed to monitor the coast line as a means of early detection of enemy ships and submarines. These structures influenced the lives of the people who resided in the several Delaware coastal towns where they were originally built and still stand today.

The 11 concrete towers that span the coastlines of Delaware and New Jersey are a crucial part of wartime American History. They stand as a testament to a period of time in which life as an American citizen was not certain. These Fire Control Towers were needed as a means of triangulating targets for the intricate system of underground artillery that protected the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Fearing vulnerability to attack, military officials ordered the construction of Fort Miles in 1941. Due to the wartime steel shortage, officials locally sourced a construction company to build the towers out of poured concrete and reinforced steel rebar. These materials were much more expensive at the time but due to the urgency of the situation, cost was not an issue.

tower map

Here the location of the remaining 11 Fire Control towers are depicted. The towers corresponding to particular artillery and were strategically placed along the coast lines of Delaware and New Jersey.

The effect the construction of Fort Miles had on the local population was mixed. As this was a period of wartime, the local community was not consulted in regard to location of the base nor the far reaching implications of its construction. Local historian Dr. Gary Wray states that the locals were mostly unaware of the purpose of the towers as they were constructed on the federally owned beaches. However, once boats began being sunk off the coast, the community became concerned with the loudness of the guns as well as their own safety.

Though smaller than they are today, the local beach towns were highly populated for the time and exceedingly vulnerable. On January 15th, 1942, the German U Boat, U123, appeared off the coast of Rehoboth Beach, DE. According to records, the Germans were amazed to see how lit up and unaware the town was. This lighting proved dangerous to U.S. ships monitoring the coastline as it often created a silhouette for enemy ships. In May of 1942, the federal government ordered a coastline wide blackout after sunset. Dr. Gray even cited a woman being arrested by the FBI for raising her house shades due to the light it emitted. The effect of this base on the population of the coastal towns was pervasive in every aspect of daily life.

These towers still stand today due to the resilient materials with which they were constructed. Because of this, they now immortalize a period of American History not often discussed in the history books. Local children were learning of the war with their own eyes as ships were burning and sinking off the coast. These Fire Control Towers help to remind us of the fact that in WWII the war was fought not only on the American home front of Hawaii, but on the Eastern Coast as well.